• Progress on halting biodiversity loss has stalled, and many species are at risk.
  • Most biodiversity campaigns focus on well-known, large or beautiful animals and plants.
  • Here's why we should care about the unknown, small and ugly ones, too.

Last month, the United Nations Global Biodiversity Outlook announced that no government had met a single target to halt biodiversity loss in the last decade. Deforestation rates are increasing, with an estimated 17% of the Amazon rainforest being lost in the last 50 years. Bee populations are at risk due to human activity and, in the US, honey bee populations declined by 60% between 1947-2008 while in Europe, 12 wild bee species are critically endangered.

Some recovery packages are already acknowledging the role of nature in helping the economy recover from COVID-19. In September, leaders from 77 countries pledged to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 during the UN Biodiversity Summit and negotiations are ongoing to finalise the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

For any of these efforts to succeed, we must first expand our understanding of biodiversity.

Biodiversity beyond bees

Biodiversity conversations tend to focus on certain plants and animals while ignoring others.

Popular imagination often heralds trees and bees as the cornerstone of nature. For conservation campaigns, it pays – literally – to be a large mammal that people can easily identify with or a species that seems directly useful to humans. "Charismatic megafauna" is a term often employed to describe these eye-catching animals that easily attract donations. We also strive to protect species with obvious commercial interest, such as tuna and the honeybee.

But we are doing ourselves a disservice if we define biodiversity too narrowly.

Many species are too small, too ugly, too few or still undiscovered for us to notice them, and the public is far less likely to consider unattractive animals as vital to protect. Let’s not make these the reasons why they are overlooked. We must not risk letting our notion of beauty simplify natural systems and, for example, let slugs go extinct.

While it is natural for humans to anthropomorphise animals, it does little to reflect their role in an ecosystem. For example, dolphins may be no more worthy of saving than the blobfish.

And as aesthetic and commercial standards dominate, science may get left behind. Public and corporate donors are lining up to save the polar bear, for example, but funds are not being directed to saving life-supporting bacteria.

Plants also have a tough time garnering attention in the public sphere where poster species such as whales and elephants rule. A report released during the UN Biodiversity Summit, revealed that 40% of the world’s plant species are at risk of extinction. This report highlighted that humanity cannot survive without plants and fungi but since many species are yet to be discovered, we may miss out on an untapped treasure chest of solutions to some of our greatest problems, including potential coronavirus treatments.

While single species can be vital in putting biodiversity on the map and making the case for conservation of the ecosystems that support them, they are not the best proxies for biodiversity. We should, therefore, acknowledge all species as being part of complex, interdependent systems.

Image: Falco Negenman/Unsplash

Biodiversity is not just a numbers game

Pollinators are an essential part of biodiversity: Up to 90% of plants rely on animal-mediated pollination, with bees often springing to mind. Yet, pollinators are much more than bees. There are around 20,000 species of bees in the world out of 350,000 known pollinators. In Europe, the honeybee is a very important pollinator in terms of crops and honey production, but plants in warmer climates, such as the fig tree or yucca palm, rely on specific wasps and moths for pollination.

If we consider the most important pollinator in terms of pollinator diversity, moths and butterflies, with more than 140,000 species, win the title. But we shouldn’t be asking which are the most important, or even most numerous, pollinators. No single pollinator can get the job done. We need diversity within bee species, and all other pollinators, to meet the needs of ecosystems, including our own.

It is easy to equate biodiversity as the number of species, with more being better. However, biodiversity is much more complex than that, and for an ecosystem to be healthy and resilient, it must have, not only different types of species but species with different traits and functions. Human life will not survive without diversity between species and within species.

This thinking is already influencing some conservation agendas. The government of Belize, for example, protected parrotfish, not necessarily because their numbers were declining, but because of the critical function they perform in cleaning algae from coral which is central to reef survival.

In addition, most species are naturally scarce but no less important than ones that are abundant and may actually disproportionately contribute to maintaining ecological processes. For example, the solitary and rare giant moray eel is critical to coral reefs. Focusing purely on numbers when it comes to biodiversity will not allow us to fully understand all the processes and functions that species contribute to.

Image: Joe Vodell/Unsplash

Forgotten heroes of the forest

When we think of nature, we often think of trees and forests. Forests cover about 30% of land on Earth and provide a home for over half of the world’s known land plants and animals. Forests also help reduce climate change. However, they are not the only important ecosystems for climate change or biodiversity. Coastal ecosystems, such as mangroves and tidal marshes actually sequester more carbon than forests.

In addition, planting more trees is but part of the solution to reversing nature loss and this type of thinking could condone mass mono-crop plantations that are in fact harmful to the environment. New forests may be less biodiverse and have even been labelled green deserts when not done right.

Forest ecosystems thrive thanks to a plethora of, often invisible, species. One teaspoon of healthy soil has more living organisms than there are people on the planet. Without these microorganisms, there would be no trees, no plants, and no animal life. Moreover, there is growing evidence that healthy soil microbiomes are more likely to produce healthier food.

Therefore, it is not only on trees and forest that we depend, but on the tiny, but powerful, species working tirelessly together. Importantly, the line between different ecosystems is blurred and since species and processes cross those boundaries, it is not enough to just focus on one ecosystem in order to safeguard nature.

Another invisible, but no less important, species are phytoplankton found in the ocean. The ocean makes up over 70% of the Earth’s surface and plays a critical role in regulating the climate and providing humanity with livelihoods, recreation and food. Phytoplankton are microscopic organisms, nick-named the ocean’s ‘invisible forests’, that generate about half of the atmosphere’s oxygen and store as much carbon as all land plants.

Similarly, many crucial contributors to the biodiversity necessary for us to grow food may easily be overlooked. In addition to soil microorganisms, a myriad of species such as bats, birds, corals and worms keep soils fertile, pollinate our crops and fight off pests and diseases.

Beyond marketing

It is difficult to fully grasp the extent of the number of species that work together to support life on Earth. However, we can make the same strides with biodiversity as we did to understand the complex science behind climate change.

While trees and mammals make a much more convincing and emotive case in marketing campaigns than marshland or bacteria, taking a narrow view of biodiversity hides nature’s true wonder. Instead, let’s view species, not through a human-centred lens, but rather as equally critical parts of incredible, complex and life-giving systems.

Importance must be given to all species, whether beautiful or not, numerous or not, visible or not. It is only then that we will be able to tackle the task at hand and safeguard nature.